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  1216: Church of the Incarnation, New York City, USA

Church of the Incarnation, New York City, New York

Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper.
The church: Church of the Incarnation, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: The church's appearance is deceptively simple. One notes right away the early English Gothic revival architecture and the splendid marble high altar. But it is only upon looking about that one sees the unobtrusive but lovely and interesting murals, two chapels, and art with both religious and historical significance. The parish website has a detailed slide show that is well worth a visit.
The church: It's a small parish. Keeping this in mind, its offerings of education, nursery care, and outreach are significant. The church's history (again well detailed on the website) is quite intriguing. This is certainly a parish well accustomed to adapting to changing times and coping with tragedy.
The neighborhood: Incarnation is located at Madison Avenue and 35th Street, an area best described as plain vanilla midtown Manhattan. Nothing remarkable – just standard business and residential properties. Not far away are Manhattan's two railroad depots, Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal.
The cast: The Rev. Amy Chambers Cotright was the celebrant, assisted by the Rev. Deacon Robert Zito. The Rev. J. Douglas Ousley, rector, preached the sermon.
The date & time: Sunday, February 19, 2006, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist and sermon.

How full was the building?
I would estimate that about 30 people were in attendance – perhaps a quarter of the number that could comfortably fit.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, on several counts. I was pleasantly greeted on my way in by an usher who provided me with the service booklets. On the way out I was welcomed by each of the three clergy and invited to the coffee hour. As will be seen, coffee hour was a pretty friendly affair. All of this reveals a parish high up the scale in the welcoming department.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. There was plenty of room, and solid hassocks assured comfortable kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived just in time for the service to begin, so I cannot comment.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to the Church of the Incarnation."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a service sheet listing all hymns and lessons, a separate booklet containing the order of service and a description of the artistic works and architecture of the church, and a third sheet with the readings for the day. The service music and hymns were from the 1982 Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. Though the choir seemed competent, the mass parts were extremely simple, and my impression was that this is a parish where the congregation takes the lead and the choir merely provides support. The two anthems the choir sang were not especially distinguished, and somehow the performance reminded me of the Ray Conniff Singers (think Somewhere My Love).

Did anything distract you?
For once, it was a forgivable, if not blessed, distraction, even if I lost my place in the order of service for a moment. Though I often have been in the company of women priests, this was the first time I had attended a eucharist with a female celebrant, and it moved me deeply. At the words of the consecration, "Do this for the remembrance of me," I was struck with the timelessness of Christ's command extending for 2,000 years, and a sense of deep gratitude that I live in the first era where women, always considered to be created in God's image and likeness, can equally be acknowledged as able to serve as icons of Jesus' humanity in his priesthood.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a simple low to broad church service that I found both peaceful and comfortable. The simple elegance of the service – no incense, bells, or chasubles – was impressive in a way that my high church inclinations would seldom allow me to admit. The lack of visual distractions somehow focused the attention on the pure words of the Prayer Book.

Church of the Incarnation, New York City, New York

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – The homilist seemed ill at ease, and my impression was that he was trying to be chatty and relevant but fell somewhat short of the mark. He seemed to mean well, speaking of the need for spiritual healing, but the sermon became bogged down in anecdotes and asides about health.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke on the gospel lesson, the story of the paralytic healed by Jesus. The presumption is that the sick man was a sinner, just as many presume that sickness results from poor habits and bad eating. He mentioned how his wife, who has multiple sclerosis, is the constant recipient of incorrect and unsolicited advice. One can be a Christian without grasping the joy of faith.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Both the celebrant and deacon spoke with impeccable diction. The result was a purity and naturalness that made the thees and thous of the Rite I eucharist sound as fresh as the the broadest New York accent one could hear outside on the street (though far more elegant).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I felt like I was walking through hell on my way to church. It was a bitterly cold morning, and the sight of the homeless on the street desperately seeking warmth was heartbreaking.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The clergy greeted everyone at the door and invited us to the coffee hour, making an especial effort to single out new faces. I not only had no chance to look lost (even though I am very shy), but several parishioners went out of their way to strike up a conversation over coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Splendid – perhaps the best coffee I have had in any church (or in most restaurants). It had a flavor of espresso, and was dispensed from silver urns. Chocolate biscuits were also available, piled high on a silver tray.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Based solely on the music, which was not really to my taste.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Indeed – and equally happy to be part of an Anglican tradition where dignified worship can run the gamut from high to low.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
My surprise and pleasure at taking part in a eucharist led by a woman.
 
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